POLITICS

This Former Opera Star Thinks His Country Will Be Russia's Next Ukraine

Paata Burchuladze is working Capitol Hill to raise awareness about Georgia's worries.
Paata Burchuladze, a former opera star and the founder of the Georgian Development Foundation.
Paata Burchuladze, a former opera star and the founder of the Georgian Development Foundation.

WASHINGTON -- Paata Burchuladze, a native of the small ex-Soviet country of Georgia, knows how to be "sly, gravelly," "imposing" and "wonderfully menacing," according to reviewers who have seen him perform during his 35-year career in the international opera world. Does that mean the millionaire performer is ready to tackle the United States Congress?

Maybe not, but he says he feels a patriotic duty to rise to the challenge regardless. "Mostly Georgia is Atlanta to them," Burchuladze said of the 40-odd lawmakers and congressional staffers he has met with in two separate trips to Washington in recent weeks. He worries that the lack of awareness means the U.S. will not pay enough attention to a critical moment for his homeland: parliamentary elections scheduled for Oct. 8, which will determine Georgia's next government. With all musical commitments canceled for the foreseeable future, the bulky bass singer is now the face of an advocacy group called the Georgian Development Foundation.

Paata Burchuladze, left, during a dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Friday
Paata Burchuladze, left, during a dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky's "Mazeppa," at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Friday, March 3, 2006. He says he has stepped away from music to focus on serving his country.

Burchuladze believes election season will invite foul play by Georgia's powerful neighbor Russia. He wants American attention to ensure the elections are fair in what he calls a "strategic partner" for Washington -- a bastion of pro-Western sentiment, and relatively democratic politics, which is a stone's throw from Russia, Turkey and Iran. Georgia's rulers have tried for over a decade to increase formal ties with NATO, the European Union and the U.S., though they have made only limited progress. Last December, NATO signaled its intention to expand by inviting Montenegro to join the alliance, but it didn't offer Georgia a pathway to membership -- a move some experts suggested was because of Russian opposition to expanding the military alliance.

Russia maintains that two regions overwhelmingly considered part of Georgia by the international community -- South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- are independent states. It deployed troops to them in 2008 to push back Georgian government forces trying to crush separatists. And it has signed treaty agreements with them over the last two years.

Russia's recent history with other neighbors doesn't inspire very much optimism from people like Burchuladze. It's now been two years since President Vladimir Putin formally annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Prior to that, Putin had already been encouraging pro-Russian separatist fighters in other parts of the country. The militiamen seized, and still control, parts of eastern Ukraine.

More than 9,000 people have died in the region since April 2014 despite attempts to cease the fighting under internationally negotiated ceasefires and harsh Western sanctions meant to deter Russian aggression.

"We can discuss everything with Russia but that we are independent and that we will take a Western direction," Burchuladze told The Huffington Post in a recent interview. "We have a problem with Russia which we would like very much to solve … it's important for the U.S. to try to help."

His foundation, which he launched in the Georgian capital of Tblisi in November and is expanding throughout the country, appears designed to elicit American attention. It has set up offices in Washington and Los Angeles and begun thinking about ways to bring American investment and pro-democracy funding to Georgia, he said. It's also hired American publicists to help Burchuladze arrange meetings around D.C. Why the sudden rush to act? "The pressure of Russia is very big and our government is afraid to make the next step and I think it's not right."

The foundation is not a political party, Burchuladze emphasized. Still, Georgian media is filled with rumors that it's simply a political vehicle for the opera star, who can compensate for his lack of government experience by speaking of how prominently he has represented his nation abroad. It remains possible that he will announce a run for parliament within weeks, and he's certainly well aware of the reputation he's established. "Ask your father if he's heard of me," Burchuladze said, when this reporter mentioned family members who are opera fans. 

Burchuladze told HuffPost he presently has no intention of endorsing a candidate or party in the elections. Both major political groups, the ruling Georgia Dream coalition and the opposition United National Movement, are in favor of closer ties with the West.

But Georgia Dream's government, in power since 2012, has opened up political space for pro-Russian voices who were wary of being too assertive under the UNM government, which often clamped down on opposition figures and media outlets it viewed as being too close to Russia.

Now, a weak economy and the two top parties' inability to win bigger commitments from the West has resulted in more Georgians believing their future might instead lie with Russia. The proportion of Georgians in favor of joining the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union, an alternative to the EU, tripled between 2013 and 2015, according to polling by the National Democratic Institute. The situation in Ukraine has also affected Georgian opinion, according to analysts in the country. "Putin looks like a strong guy who's getting his way. ... So people think, 'What exactly are the benefits from Europe?' Maybe it's silly to resist Russia so much," Ghia Nodia, a Tblisi-based researcher, told the Financial Times last year. Even though Georgians may feel developing ties with the West is their best bet in the long run, trade with Russia and its proxies in the Eurasian Union could deliver short-term benefits, according to Michael Hikari Cecire, a scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Russia's physical power in the country is growing even more dramatically than its soft power. In 2014 and 2015 respectively, the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia signed agreements with Putin that opened their borders to Russia and gave Moscow control over their troops and economies -- essentially handing them over to Russia. A Guardian investigation into Russian activities in South Ossetia found that Putin's troops had built border fences, gun positions and observation towers on the line they had drawn between one part of Georgia and another. People who identified as Georgians have now found themselves in the self-proclaimed independent state, or have been told their orchards lie across a new international border. Meanwhile, almost 30,000 Georgians remain in refugee camps because of the 2008 war. Both Russia and Georgia committed horrific crimes against civilians during that conflict, according to Human Rights Watch.

A warning sign placed along the border Russia has enforced between Georgia and South Ossetia.
A warning sign placed along the border Russia has enforced between Georgia and South Ossetia.

Observers like Cecire warn that further Russian domination of Georgia would threaten European hopes to substitute unreliable Russian oil and gas supplies with energy from Central Asia, and potentially create a new source of instability and tension in an overlooked region.

"Under Russian domination, Georgia might fall back into a mirror image of its 1990s past: a failed state and open air market for illicit trade," the academic wrote in the Washington Post in January. "Racked by civil war and warlordism, it could be a fertile ground for radicalism."

Two former U.S. ambassadors to Georgia and one former European diplomat made a similar call in a U.S. News and World Report op-ed that same month. "Georgia is a former Soviet success story," wrote Denis Corboy, William Courtney and Kenneth Yalowitz. "Georgians should know that the West has their back."

During his visit to Washington this week, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili will likely make a similar case in a Tuesday address at the United States Institute of Peace.

But the appeal for more U.S. involvement in a relatively remote region is unlikely to have much of an impact at a time when America is rethinking how much it wants to intervene in world affairs. President Barack Obama has decided, according to Jeffrey Goldberg's recent analysis of his foreign policy, that he has little interest in American involvement in arenas that he sees as naturally destined to be dominated by Russia -- like Ukraine and Georgia. In his view, no amount of American support to these nations or evidence of an American willingness to act to protect them can deter Moscow. He told Goldberg he sees that position as "realistic" rather than "fatalistic."

And with Americans war-weary and praise of the Russian leader growing in political discourse on the left and right here, yelling "the Russians are coming!' doesn't have the impact it once did. Turkey, another state in the region looking for more support from the West, has tried that message out recently, HuffPost revealed last month. One congressional aide told this reporter at the time that he found it ludicrous.

Georgia is still relevant to the one foreign policy issue that Americans do seem animated by: the rise of terror groups claiming to represent Islam, including the self-described Islamic State. ISIS recruitment there has been making headlines in recent years, in part because Russia is warning about it and suggesting it's a sign of poor governance in the country. The radical group said last year it had set up a province of its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in the Caucasus.

But Burchuladze suggested that threat wasn't the main problem in Georgia -- that it will be resolved once other issues are.

"It's because the economy is not so good and [people] cannot find a job," Burchuladze said when asked about potential terror recruitment. "They must stay at home and find a job" rather than travel to Iraq and Syria as some Georgians have doneHis foundation lobbies for improving the Georgian economy through more trade with the West.

So the former singer has his work cut out for him. But he's optimistic in a way many newcomers to Capitol Hill are. The lawmakers he's spoken with, in one visit in March and a second trip that concluded Friday, are "very eager" to consider Georgia's problems, he told HuffPost -- so much so that even he's surprised. "Wonderful people," he said.

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